Food and beverage can be one of meeting planners' biggest costs. However, it also can be one of their biggest opportunities, suggests culinary "trendologist" Christine Couvelier, chef and founder of Culinary Concierge, a consultancy that provides trend watching, menu planning, product development, and culinary touring for the global food industry. Food and beverage doesn't just feed meeting attendees' bellies, according to Couvelier; when it successfully leverages the latest culinary trends, she says, it also feeds their spirit. With that in mind, Successful Meetings recently asked Couvelier to divulge her secrets for staying on the cutting-edge of cuisine. What she shared proves that the best meeting menus are not only scrumptious, but also strategic.
Meeting planners are spread thin as it is. Why should they invest more of their valuable time into food and beverage?
I bet if they asked a lot of their attendees what was a memorable part of their event, food wouldn't be high on the list. But food should be high on the list. Right now consumers know more about food than ever before. They love to partake in culinary travel. They love to explore gourmet food stores. They love to watch food on TV. Food magazines are more popular than ever. Meeting attendees are aware of what's happening in the food world, so to have an event and not be thoughtful about food and beverage is missing out on an important opportunity.
Food and beverage shouldn't just be good -- it also should be memorable, right?
That's right. Consumers want to be the first to experience something. They want to feel they have been let behind the kitchen door, so to speak. One of the things I do is take my clients on "In Store + At Market" tours. For instance, some of my clients work on incentive travel. If they have a group of employees who have earned a special trip, I encourage them to think about how they can make their own "In Store + At Market" tour. For instance, if you wanted to learn more about barbecue, I would take you on a barbecue tour you'd never forget. We'd go to Memphis in May, the world's biggest barbecue festival. I would get you behind the barbecue pits of the best pit masters in the world. We would learn the difference between a North Carolina rub and a South Carolina sauce by tasting them. That kind of experience is a memory you don't forget.
Where do you look for food trends?
I'm always out of the office or out of the kitchen. I travel the world to taste and visit food shows. I travel the world to visit chefs and cook with chefs. I spend a lot of time in gourmet stores and in grocery stores. I spend a lot of time talking to consumers about what they like to eat. Meeting planners could do similar things. One of the interesting ways to look at what's happening in the food world is to read the newspaper on Wednesdays. Most often on Wednesdays, newspapers from around the world feature a food section. Just sitting at the computer and reading different food sections on Wednesday gives you some insight into what the public is looking for, talking about, cooking, and wanting to taste.
And what does the public want to taste these days? What are some of this year's biggest food trends?
There are a few big trends this year that certainly can apply to things on a meeting or event menu. One of the big trends this year is all about the taste of turmeric. Turmeric is a perennial plant -- it's in the ginger family -- and often you'll see it as a bright orange aromatic powder. It has a great number of health benefits; it helps with inflammation, it helps heal cuts, it balances blood sugar, it can improve cholesterol levels. It's fabulous, and you can find it in things like smoothies, juices, bone broth, teas, and salad dressings. It's getting quite a buzz and because of its health benefits a lot of people are jumping on board.
Another area that is very big this year is "mocktail" mixology. Nonalcoholic drinks so often are boring and not exciting at all. But bartenders have started to become very innovative when thinking of mocktails. They're using cold-pressed juices and flavored teas. They're using a lot of herbs and spices. They're using a differently shaped ice cubes that are hand-carved and hand-cut. I find that very, very innovative. So if I were planning an event, not only would I offer bar drinks, but I would offer some really exciting mocktails customized for my event.
Something that was a big trend last year, is a huge trend this year, and is going to be even bigger in 2018 is vegetable cuisine. Everything from A to Z -- from artichokes to zucchini. I'm not talking vegetarian -- there can still be meat on the plate -- but it's making vegetables the star. You're seeing all methods of preparation to get crispy, caramelized, colorful, flavorful vegetables: grilling, smoking, roasting, charring. Watch for things like vegetable charcuterie platters, roasted radishes, cauliflower rice, smoked carrots. Purple cauliflower is huge this year. So in planning menus, think about being very vegetable-forward. It's on-trend, it's great tasting, and it's healthy.
Another category that's very interesting to watch is the next generation of sommelier. When we think of a sommelier we often think of sommelier in wine. But really, a sommelier is any knowledgeable specialist who advises on an item and what goes best with it. There are now sommeliers for water, tea, craft cider, bourbon, rum, sake, coffee, and even hot sauce. So in setting up an event, think about setting up tasting bars with a sommelier or specialist guiding your guests through the different tastes available to them.
Finally, a particularly easy trend to apply is a trend I'm calling "salt is still the new pepper." Crunchy salt, flaky salt, tinted salt, crystal salt. Everywhere from Key West to Vancouver Island you can start to experience artisanal salt. Salts come in all different flavors and are a great way to add a twist to a new dish. How about sour cherry, bacon, and thyme sea salt? How about pickled ginger, green tea, and chili sea salt? Blue cheese sea salt? Merlot sea salt is unbelievable; it's as deep red as a merlot wine. Plus, sea salt has less sodium than regular table salt, so it's a great way to add a lot of flavor without adding a lot of sodium.
These trends sound delicious. How can meeting planners leverage them?
Have a conversation with the food and beverage director at the venue where you're having your event. Ask them what's special about their local area. And bring up some of the trends you're interested in. That will open up the door to a great conversation with the chef or the food and beverage manager. It will make them understand that you've done your homework and that you're thinking about something exciting -- that you're not just going to pick the standard selection in the pamphlet that's handed to you. It's going to be even more exciting for those chefs and those kitchen teams to be able to prepare food when you're involved in thinking about the flavors and the tastes.
Does it cost more to be "on trend"?
Great question. The answer is no. It doesn't. Part of being a successful chef is being flexible and knowing how to twist and tweak ingredients, recipes, flavors, and tastes. You're not going to suggest using turmeric on a very expensive lobster dish, for instance, because it's going to cost a lot of money. But a little sprinkle of turmeric in a fresh smoothie or juice that you're going to put out anyway isn't that expensive.
Any final ideas for making a "wow" out of food and beverage?
Every year I come up with one item that's the "Dish of the Year," and this year's dish is what I'm calling, "What Can You Waffle?" It's more than chicken and waffles. It can be for breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night, snacking. It can be hugely innovative. Think about making waffles out of mac and cheese, for instance, potato latkes, French toast, zucchini fritters, BLTs, hash browns, donuts, brownies, quesadillas, grilled cheese -- all of these things on waffle machines. The waffle bar is the new pasta bar. It's fun, it's memorable, and it's inexpensive. It's a big "wow" for meeting planners at any event.